Policy in Vietnam
In the history of the United States, our
foreign policy has caused many disputes over the proper role in international
affairs. Because of the unique beliefs and ideals by which we live
in this country, we feel obligated to act as leaders of the world and help
other countries in need. Therefore, the U.S. has attempted to somehow
combine this attitude with economic and strategic gain. After World
War II, the Cold War was initiated, and Americas fear of communism led
Truman to begin the endeavors of the “containment” of communism.
As a result, the U.S. became involved with Korea and then Vietnam.
The U.S. was determined not to let South Vietnam fall to the communists
because President Eisenhower once stated that the fall of Vietnam would
have a “domino” effect. Unfortunately, not everyone viewed Vietnam
the same way as Eisenhower. Opponents of the war believed that the
U.S. had no right to intervene in this civil war, while supporters maintain
the attitude of moral obligation for the world by defending freedom and
democracy from communism. Three historians in Conflict and Consensus
carefully examine our foreign policy and involvement in the Vietnam War.
Each article emphasizes different points and explains how one of the most
powerful countries in the world lost the war.
In the first article, “Gods Country and
American Know-How,” Loren Baritz argues that the American myth of superiority
based on nationalism, technology, and moral ideals brought the U.S. into
the war. The Americans never understood the Vietnamese culture and
their true sentiments on the war. Nevertheless, because of our power
and moral prowess, the U.S. was confident that we would prevail.
This was our biggest mistake; we were blind and “ignorant”(473).
Baritz states that “we were frustrated by the incomprehensible behavior
of our Vietnamese enemies and bewildered by the inexplicable behavior of
our Vietnamese friends”(470). Because of our isolation on the North
American Continent, the U.S. had a difficult time understanding the exotic
cultures around the world, especially Vietnam. Thus, as a direct
result, Americans considered foreign courtesies and rituals crude and inferior
to the customs of the civilized country of America. This point is
quite sad and embarassing, but Baritz points out that “cultural isolation”(476)
occurs all over the world. It is the Solipsistic philosophy that
the universe revolves around the earth, just as all the nations of the
world revolve around the U.S. According to John Winthrop, we are
the “Chosen People”(473) because of Gods favor and presence. So
are we obligated to set the standards of culture for the world? Because
of our prominence and success as a prosperous nation, we stand forth as
leaders; however, no country can define the culture of another nation.
The U.S. failed to understand that “everyone prefers their own language,
diet and funeral customs”(475). Upon first impression, the American
soldiers viewed the Vietnamese people as savages because “they lived like
animals”(470). Thus, the soldiers failed to appreciate “the organic
nature of Vietnamese society, the significance of village life, the meaning
of ancestors, the relationship of the family to the state, the subordinate
role of the individual, and the eternal quest for universal agreement”(470).
Just because the Vietnamese were poor, we presumed that they were begging
for our help; we were “attempting to build a nation in our own image”(471).
Furthermore, it is not the “ingratitude or stupidity”(470) which sparked
the Vietnamese resistance against U.S. soldiers but rather a cultural misunderstanding.
Baritz believes that this ignorance of
culture is one of the primary reasons why we lost the war. Dr. Henry
Kissinger even admitted that “no one in this government understands North
Vietnam”(471). We even thought we understood the Vietnamese to some
extent by thinking that “life is cheap in the Orient”(471). However,
this ridiculous comment rose from our “ability to use technology to protect
our own troops while the North Vietnamese were forced to rely on people,
their only resource”(471). This meant that the Vietnamese were willing
to sacrifice as many men as possible to win the war. Our ignorance
prevented us from overcoming this kind of warfare.
As for the cultural misunderstanding of
our allies, the South Vietnamese, Baritz points out one custom which the
American soldiers could not tolerate: soldiers holding hands. Vietnamese
soldiers held hands with other accompanying soldiers. This was a
show of friendship for the Vietnamese, but for Americans, holding hands
was a sign of homosexuality. American soldiers measured up to “the
militarys definition of manhood”(472) by compeletely condemning homosexuality.
This simple custom caused many problems between the U.S. soldiers and the
Baritz now provides the other argument
for entering the Vietnam War: The Cold War. In this argument,
the U.S. is more concerned with showing off our strong military power with
strategic planning in the nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union.
“They Soviets knew, and we knew, that this threat was not entirely real,
and that it freed the Soviets to engage in peripheral adventures because
they correctly believed that we would not destroy the world over Korea,
Berlin, Hungary or Czechoslovakia”(480). Thus, we extended the arms
race in “limited wars”(480) around the globe. We demonstrated this
in Korea, and the situation is the same in Vietnam; “we had to find a technology
to win without broadening the war”(481). We felt invincible; up to
the Vietnam War, we had never lost a war. “We had already beaten
the Indians, French, British, Mexicans, Spaniard, Germans, Italians, Japanese,
Koreans, and Chinese”(479). The U.S. was becoming too confident in
relying on our technology to beat the North Vietnamese. “We thought
we could bomb them into their senses with only limited human costs to ourselves”(483).
Technology gave us the ability to organize precise strategic maneuvers
and attacks, but unfortunately, the simple guerrilla warfare of the Vietnamese
was overpowering. “Our national myth showed us that we were good,
our technology made us strong and our bureaucracy gave us standard operating
procedures”(483), but even with this combination, the strategy was not
good enough to win the war.
In the second article, “The Legacy of Vietnam,”
Guenter Lewy carefully discusses the assumption that Vietnam and all of
Southeast Asia are important for strategic and economic gains for the U.S.
For strategic purposes, Lewy believes that by defeating the North Vietnamese,
America might contain Communist China because the Chinese threatened to”change the status quo in Asia by force”(485). As mentioned before,
Truman wanted to contain communism and prevent the rapid spread of the
evil, and Eisenhower believed that controlling Vietnam was the key to continue
the “containment.” However, Lewy believes that the “containment”
of China by defeating Vietnam is not necessary. “Asia is a very large
continent. It has a diversity of cultures, traditions, states, and
so on. Nations like their independence in Asia just as much as they
do in other parts of the world. To assume that some mystic inevitability
has decreed that they are all to be swallowed up in the Chines empire is
not convincing”(485). Lewy thinks that Eisenhowers prediction of
the “domino” effect was wrong. In fact Lewy believed that American
policy makers went into Vietnam because of fear for the grand alliance
of communism that would dominate Asia. The importance of Vietnam
is over exaggerated. “By 1969 South Vietnam accounted for less than one
percent of American import”(487). This obviously shows the unimportance
of the economic gains in Vietnam Even if these imports were important
to United States economy, it seems that the “commodities produced by the
area, such as rubber, tin and coconut oil… were not irreplaceable”(486).
The only commodity that South Vietnam had that was important to the U.S.
is the potential oil off the shores. Yet the discovery is not made
until 1970, twenty years after the conflict had started. “Needless
to say,” Lewy concluded, “this discovery in 1970 can hardly explain decisions
taken in the previous 20 years”(487).
Even as the war dragged on, the validity
of American claim in Vietnam diminished. The valid fear for the spread
of Red Asia under the leadership of Russia came to a halt in the mid-1960s.
As Lewy pointed out “Russia and China were no longer close allies but open
enemies.” It is therefore no valid claim to stay in Vietnam for “the
world communist movement no longer represented a monolith”(487).
China turned inward and focus more on its cultural revolution. In
terms of foreign policy, China sought new allies to counter-balance the
presence of its hostile Northern neighbors. The admission of China
into the United nations in 1971 proved the new direction that Chinese foreign
policy head toward. As Lewy stated, “Communism had ceased to be the
wave of the future”(487).
It seems that after series of claims to
be in Vietnam fell short, the only reason to go in is the preservation
of democracy. Democracy is the one claim which compelled us to stay
in Vietnam. Yet again Lewy doubted the great moral claim. He
believed that United motives to go into Vietnam was not as altruistic as
it seemed; the main motive of the war was to defend the title of United
States as the dominant power in the world. Such challenge is stated
when North Vietnamese Defense Minster declared in July 1964 that “South
Vietnam is the vanguard fighter of the nation liberation movement in the
present era… and the failure of the special war unleashed by the U.S.
imperialists in South Vietnam would mean that this war can be defeated
anywhere in the world.” (487) It is not surprising that presidents
immediately begin to declare Vietnam as “a vital interest of U.S.”
200,000 U.S military personnel were in Vietnam by early 1966, despite the
fact that Vietnam was “not a region of major military of industrial importance.”
(488) United States was ready to defend its world supremacy through
the battles of Vietnam. What was worse for the United States was
the arrogant attitude. United States was not like France, who “could
withdraw from Indochina and North Africa without a serious loss of prestige.”
(488) Many people believed this philosophy to be true. In fact
even as the situation became worse during Johnsons and Nixons administration,
it was still “important to liquidate the American commitment without a
humiliating defeat.” (488) The defeat however is inevitable and the
impact of the war was more devastating than the optimistic Americans had
The fall of Vietnam marks the most humiliating
defeat in American History. Americans were awaken by the trauma of
Vietnam. A “No more Vietnams” psychology sprung up all over the country.
Lewy commented that American turn to isolationism in hope that such an
disaster will never happen again. Lewy stated that the “United States
cannot and should not be the worlds policeman.” (490) The result
for taking up a moral burden such as Vietnam only results in the severe
casualties. Despite what the American ideal for democracy, Lewy concluded,
we can not support and change the world. “The Statesman cannot be
a saint” (491) as the Korean Conflict and Vietnam conflict had shown to
the American people. The American idealism changed significantly
because of the impact of Vietnam war.
Lewy ended his essay with one of the most
frequently asked questions: could the United States have won in Vietnam?
Lewy suggested that United States started off on the wrong foot in the
beginning. Simple motives like “fighting for democracy in Vietnam”
and “halting communist aggression” while having some truth in them are
not enough to justify the position of U.S. intervention. President
Johnson also made a mistake in the beginning of the war because of his
confidence. He constantly “spoke of success and light at the end
of the tunnel, but continued to dispatch additional troops while casualties
mounted steadily.” (492) The turning of the war from a “limited war”
to a full scale occurred as more troops were sent in. Yet while Johnson
was willing to send in more troops, he was unwilling to declare war.
American people did not know what they were fighting for because of the
undeclared war. Further, without industrial mobilization on the home
front, the mission was destined to fail. The nation ended up fighting”a limited with the full employment of its military power restricted through
elaborate rules of engagements and limitations… while for its determined
opponent the war was total.” (492)
Lewy did not deny that the war was lost
militarily. In fact he believed that U.S. strategy was wrong from
the beginning. He wrote that “the U.S. failed to understand the real
stakes in a revolutionary war.” (497) United States army failed to
realize the objective of the war. Edward G. Landsdale once wrote
that “the Vietnamese Communist generals saw their armed forces a instruments
primarily to gain political goals. The American generals saw their forces
primarily as instruments to defeat enemy military forces.” (497)
As a result Lewy concluded, “the enemys endurance and supply of manpower
proved stronger than American persistence in keeping up the struggle.”
(497) The resolute Vietnamese opposition simply demoralized our will
to fight. When they suffered major casualties it strengthened them
while it weaken United States morale when we suffered major casualties.
Finally Lewy believed that The United States had set out on the wrong foot
from the beginning. “The war,” Lewy commented, “not only had to be
won in South Vietnam, but it had to be won by the South Vietnamese.” (497)
Yet it seems that from the beginning of the conflict, The Republic of Vietnam
did not have the zeal that the U.S. did. The United States however
failed to stress the importance of the role the South Vietnamese should
play. As a result the war could not be won because we were not Vietnamese.
Henry Kissinger inevitably concluded that “outside effort can only supplement,
but not create local efforts and local will to resist.” (499) The
United States could neither win a war nor lose one because it is not our
war. The failure of the Vietnamese people to take their active roles
in their revolutionary war was the cause for the lost war. Lewy therefore
concluded that with the war lost on the enemy front, home front and the
Vietnamese front, the war in Vietnam could not be won.
Finally, in “The Last War, The Next War,
and The New Revisionists” Walter LaFeber also attempts to address the Vietnam
question. He first addresses the reason for the losing of the war.
He brings up the Westmoreland Thesis which argued that “the conflict was
not lost on the battlefield, but at home where overly sensitive politicians
followed a “no-win policy” to accommodate “a misguided minority opposition.”
and that “the enemy finally won the war politically in Washington.” (500)
Other revisionist historians like Gelband Betts proposed that “it was not
the system; that failed… the failure was to be blamed on the American
people who never understood the war and finally tired of it, and on the
President who supinely followed the people.” (501) Lewy, another
historian further, clarified Westmorelands argument that antiwar groups
wrongly labeled Vietnam illegal and immoral. But Lewy inevitably
destroyed Westmorelands thesis when he mentioned the massacre at My Lai
and at Cam Ne. The blame for losing the war, therefore LaFeber concluded,
is split among the Revisionists and the other historians.
LaFeber then addresses the impact of the
war to build up his thesis of the Revisionists. He argues that “Vietnam
greatly altered the world balance of power” and that “American power
has dramatically declined, politically as well as militarily.” (501)
The lessons of Vietnam invariably became the basis for American foreign
policy for the next decade. The Afghanistan and Iran crisis during
Carters administration showed that lessons of Vietnam had finally taken
itself in the form of the nations policy. Furthermore, Ronald Reagan
proclaimed in one of speeches that “we must rid ourselves of the Vietnam
syndrome.” (503) Therefore LaFeber concluded that the lesson of Vietnam
had changed U.S. foreign policy greatly.
Lastly, LaFeber discusses the arguments
of the new revisionists. He criticizes their explicit claims and
the facts that they chose to ignore. The new revisionists claim that
the country has been “misguided by the opinions of the minority” is not
correctly stated. Herbert Schandlers study had shown that the latest
public opinions rallied behind the president. (503) Even as the antiwar
movements increased during late 1970, the public opinions did not turn
the president. LaFeber showed that “it did not stop Nixon from expanding
the conflict into Cambodia and Laos.” (504) Therefore LaFeber concluded
that the Antiwar movements had been greatly overrated by the Revisionists.
The Revisionist instead should emphasize the defeat military in Vietnam.
The Revisionists also concentrated too much on the Soviet Union.
Instead they should focus “on the instability of the Third World areas
that the Soviets have at times turned to their own advantage.” (505)
The Revisionists therefore did not understand where the problems were in
south East Asia. LaFeber also stressed that the Revisionist had underestimated
Unites States military power. American military will is not lacking;
the troops as LaFeber pointed out were “supported by the most powerful
naval and air force ever used in Asia.” (505) Bombs were dropped
every minute on Vietnam. Therefore neither the will nor the power
is lacking in the war. The war was lost not because U.S. declined
in power but rather from the “overestimation of American Power.” (505)
The Revisionists, suggested LaFeber, over-exaggerated some of the issues.
If the power of United States were
overestimated, the war then was lost because of the aid of our allies and
the cost of the war. The Revisionists often overlooked this subject,
LaFeber argued. He pointed out that “of the forty nations tied to
the United States by treaties only four- Australia, New Zealand, South
Korea, and Thailand- committed any combat troops.” (506) Even South
Korea, a country which owed much to U.S., only send troops after Washington
bribed them. The failure of the aid from the coalition eventually
undermined the U.S. effort in Vietnam. The will of the people which
the Revisionists stressed as the downfall of the war is also affected by
the cost of the war. The American people simply did not want to fight
a bread and butter war. Domestically, the Great Society Program must
be sacrificed to accommodate the war. The great cost of the war eventually
influenced the public sentiment so much that the will of people favors
peace. By overlooking the two key aspects of the war, LaFeber concluded,
the Revisionists attempt to make the war “more acceptable,” and “hoped
to make the next war legitimate, even before… where it will be or what
it will be fought over.” (508)
These three articles in Conflict and Consensus
all showed remarkably similarity not only in their subjects but also in
their opinions. They all attempted to address why the United States
lost the war. In doing so they also addressed the attitude of American
people and the military forces. They analyzed the strength of the
U.S. military power and the Vietnamese forces. They all asked the
question of why the war started and what importance was Vietnam.
But despite the similarities of the three articles, they differ in details.
While Baritz addressed the loss of Vietnam,
he attributed the loss to the ignorance and haughty attitude of Vietnam.
She stressed the myth of America as the “Gods chosen country” and believed
that we lost the war because we were too arrogant and too confident of
ourselves. Baritz argued that Americans put too much faith into technology,
Bureaucracy and the myth. These things she addressed as the downfall
of United States. Lewy shared a different view when he attempted
to address the loss of Vietnam. He attacked the conflict from the
beginning, doubting the importance of Vietnam and United States motive
to interfere. He also addressed some of the major forces that turned
public opinion against the war such as TV, the lack of declaration of war,
and the antiwar movements. On a military scale, Lewy also addressed
the ineptitude of the American army to fight a revolutionary war and the
failure to draw the Vietnamese into their own war. Lewy proposed
a more comprehensive theory from the beginning to the end of how the United
States could lose the war. LaFebers interest in his article however
is not addressing how America lost the war. But nevertheless by rejecting
some of the Revisionists points of view, he revealed a different scope
of the war. He rejected Westmorelands theory and pointed out that
the public sentiment was favoring the president and the war. He rejected
the focus of the war on Communism and Russia to show that the South East
Asia problem is a question of stability not communism. LaFeber also
pointed out the common misunderstanding of the conflicts central political
and military features. He believed that United States overestimated
its own power. Furthermore he revealed the reluctance of American
allies to commit its troops, and he revealed that the public is unwilling
to sacrifice butter for guns. LaFebers view therefore is extremely
different from the two historians mentioned before yet he still attempted
to address the same questions.